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Supercars

Across Italy in the Ferrari 488 GTB

Where else could you take Ferrari’s turbo masterpiece but to a town named 'Power'?

  • I awake with a start. A carload of men shout frantically at me, gesturing and pointing along the road. I’d only dozed off in the driving seat for a few minutes. We’d arrived on the edge of a tiny hill village, and John the photographer went ahead to look for locations, leaving me behind to avoid the possibility of wedging this wide new Ferrari into some tiny ancient alleyway. So he’s nowhere to be seen, and I am being – possibly – ambushed. This region is home to the ‘Fifth Mafia’, the Basilischi. I dunno, these guys are grinning and making camera gestures. My instinct says they’ve been commissioned by John to direct me to his photo op. I tag along behind their car, up a road that narrows and twists and eventually arrives at the gateway to an isolated cemetery. Great.

    Photography: John Wycherley

    This feature was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Top Gear Magazine.

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  • Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this had they not been perfectly benign. We find John and all get out of our cars. They take the usual selfies while asking the usual questions about the car. How fast – how powerful – how much? Wow, che bella… That’s what it does to people. A supercar isn’t a selfish indulgence for the driver, but a joy to be shared. Down the autostrada yesterday, families with over-excited kids would draw alongside, wind down their windows, urge me to give the V8 a bit of a tickle, grab a phone shot. (I was that kid myself once. In the early Eighties I grabbed a shot on print film of a certain Porsche just because I recognised its manufacturer-owned registration from car magazines: THE 928S.)

  • Arrivederci to my brand-new friends. I press the Ferrari’s starter again. Now, if this had been the 458 or its predecessors, I’d have winced, concerned about shattering the peaceful cemetery walls. Of waking the dead. But not this time. Because this is the 488, the new-age twin-turbo V8. It hums into life, subdued as a priest reciting the liturgy of committal.

    Oh, how we love the 488. It might be quiet at idle, and civil at moderate speed, but that deceives. At full noise, it’s a ferociously powerful thing, fast enough to bamboozle and corrupt you, to bend your perceptions. Having chosen the 488 as our Supercar of the Year, we wanted a proper road trip. Scouring maps of southern Italy for driver-centric roads and scenery, I came across a town called Potenza.

    Its tourist-office claim is to be Italy’s highest-altitude regional capital. That’s not what caught my eye. Potenza in Italian translates as ‘power’ in English. We all love a bad pun, so a “power trip” was hatched. South from Rome and on to Naples and Salerno, even initially past Potenza itself to the forested hills and jagged mounts beyond. City, autostrada, fast sweeping A-road, valleys and mountainous passes, an entire five-course, 1,000km, driver’s buffet.

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  • Just as well, because the 488 is not a car that you get to know at the first blush. For a start, there’s the sheer speed of the thing, which needs acclimatisation like high-altitude training does. Beyond that, it takes time and no little mental effort to prise open the enigma of the engine’s delivery.

    Ferrari’s stated aim was to build a turbo engine that feels like a naturally aspirated engine. Huh? As maker of undoubtedly the world’s sharpest and most exciting naturally aspirated engines, why not just build another of those? You know the answer: the thicket of global fuel-consumption rules. But also, the turbos gave Ferrari the chance to serve up much more power and very much more torque in an overall engine package that’s physically smaller, lower and slightly lighter than before. And while there might be people in the supercar-buying community who say their cars have enough power, a penny to a pound says if they were offered more they’d fail miserably to resist the temptation.

  • So the 488 honks out 661bhp, which is 100 more than the 458. And that ain’t the half of it. Maximum torque, 560lb ft, is more than 40 per cent up on the 458, and it occurs from 3,000rpm. Look at the overlaid curves of the two engines and you see that at 3,000rpm the turbo engine has approximately double the torque of the old. This difference is exhilarating to the point of being frankly shocking.

    Ferrari engineers wanted, as I say, to make the new engine retain the characteristics of their n/a units. That means instant throttle response, achieved by endlessly and expensively sweating the detail: the turbos have hyperlight titanium-aluminium turbines, running on ball-bearings.

    But they also wanted a feeling that acceleration rises all the way as revs swing to the red line – that sense Ferraris always give that they magically feed off their own energy. This, though, is fundamentally incompatible with the engine’s flat torque plateau. So they doctored it. In the low gears, the boost is heavily regulated so the torque curve is suppressed at medium revs, and then rises to its full extent as you climb the tacho dial. As you shift up through successive gears, the regulation reduces. Only in top do you get the full torque. But, yes, if you travel to the red line you can get full power in every gear.

  • If you think I’m having to labour to explain it, try driving it. Yes, the engine behaves differently in every gear (as, of course, do some of the new hybrid cars including the 918 and i8, which have multi-geared combustion engines and single-gear electric motors). I’m finding myself short-shifting out of the lower gears, because with each new ratio the engine finds extra potential. It’s slightly baffling at first, and in the early hours with the car I’m cursing myself for not getting the best from it. But eventually it becomes relaxing: when there’s always more performance than you can use, why fret you’ve not done what’s needed to have available far more than enough?

    In top gear, the 488 is just immense. Floor it on a motorway, and the boost builds like some kind of gravitational discontinuity. In that regime, it makes even a McLaren 675LT seem limp. The puffers hiss, the exhaust roars, and the speedo goes mildly berserk. This is turbocharging in its absolute pomp.

  • But at the other extreme, when you’re on a mountain hairpin in second, that much mid-rev torque might be an unhinged, heart-in-mouth liability. That’s not how things are, because the torque is moderated, and the engine, while always responsive and spookily lag-free, vouchsafes its full majesty only if you’ve signed the indemnity form by going higher in the revs. You wanted overabundance did you? OK: now, now, right now, here it is: brutally rapid, yet controllable because it’s so progressive. You’re lunged ahead until the shift lights start blinking, and when you tap the paddle for the next gear that increased boost means the power hasn’t tailed off one bit.

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  • As I sit here writing, I’m still not sure I have a clear mental calibration of just how fast the 488 is. Whenever I was driving it hard, I was devoting so much mental bandwidth to the process of driving that I had none left to commit it to memory.

    So Ferrari delivered on the freedom from lag, and on the high-rev mania. But it also wanted a great noise. It got a very good noise. Mercifully quiet at low loads, which is useful, but able to rend the air when it’s being properly used. It’s still a flat-crank V8 noise, like the predecessors, but one with a bit of extra baritone and lusher harmonics. Unfortunately, it makes just the one noise – a tone that rises in pitch and volume as you open the throttles and claim more revs. It lacks the enchanting variety of characters that the earlier engines had, the way they barped or rasped or farted or hummed depending on what you did with the pedal. And the 488 goes only to 8,000rpm, not the 9,000 the Speciale reached.

  • Now 8k sounds exciting, but 9k is electrifying. I’m remembering the Speciale and thinking, in Tim Booth’s lyric, that if I hadn’t seen such riches I could live with being poor. I’m not saying a 488 at 8,000rpm is auditory impoverishment; it’s still a very rich sound, just one that’s paying a more equitable rate of tax.

    Happily, in return for this small loss of high-rev voice against the 458, the 488 displays yet more over-endowment in its chassis. OK, I think the steering is a little quick off-centre, making it feel slightly twitchy on very fast corners taken at greedy speed. And when the road is greasily moist, light cornering loads are almost below the threshold where the steering starts giving you any feel. But there my list of cavils stutters to a halt.

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  • In the wet, even with the manettino in the corresponding setting, it’s ready to play. Mug the throttle, and the tail is quite happy to test your reflexes with a sidestep before the traction control chips in, winking conspiratorially at you.

    Now here comes a dry, more open road, tracing the twists of a wooded ridge. Time to get more load into these tyres, to feel them gripping via the steering and seat, and to sharpen the car’s reflexes by clicking the manettino upward. The suspension and grip management systems are much as those in the Speciale, including the freakishly dextrous side slip control system, this time made even cleverer. As before, it watches wheelspin and throttle and yaw and throttle and steering and much else. As before, it uses the power and the e-diff to influence the angle and rate of slide. But now it has a further degree of subtle intervention by using the adaptive dampers to control dynamic roll, front and rear.

  • And, of course, the most marvellous thing about this brain-fryingly complex piece of engineering is, it doesn’t feel like it’s working at all. The impression it gives is that my own special epic driving skills are keeping this crazy 661bhp rocket-sled dancing beyond the edge of the envelope. Dream on, Paul.

    They are dream roads, though. Not that smooth, but the harmony between the 488’s springing and damping means it can swallow a poor surface without losing either direction or comfort. I’ve the road to myself bar the odd Panda 4x4 or time-served Punto. The velvety quilted valleys rise to rocky outcrops whose hostility is softened by the beginnings of golden spring light.

    At the top of one of them, reached by a staircase of hairpins and switchbacks that are a delirious playground for the 488, perches the village of Albano di Lucania. Absolutely nothing is doing. The cafe seems shut fast. Then a man has it opened for us, and offers beer and a sandwich, for no better reason than we’re in a Ferrari. OK, and also he’s evidently had a couple of sly lunchtime beers himself. We decline the beer and ravish down the panini while he amiably rambles to us in an Italian that might as well be, for all our understanding of it, Mesopotamian.

  • After more selfies for his family, we need to return again towards Rome. It had been vicious when I’d picked up the 488 there. Biblical rain poured out of a pitch-black sky, and I had to steer this precious and possibly diva-ish car between trucks and pinballing cars among roadworks with chicanes and ramps and unmarked hazards. The 488 could have been a catastrophe, but instead it was exactly what I wanted. It happily co-operated.

    It was, in short, just a car; easy to see out of, supple in ride and smooth in powertrain. Forget the highly strung tendencies supercars are supposed to exhibit when you take them out of their advertised high-speed environment. I mean, really the only significant drawback in Rome was the ridiculous spoke-mounted indicator buttons. When you have the wheel half-turned in a junction, the right button indicates left and the left, right. When I’m coping with Rome traffic in a downpour, I don’t have the mental resources to cope with that paradox. What madness causes Ferrari to persist with this solution when so much else about the 488’s cabin is so satisfying in its thoughtfulness and beauty?

  • Beauty. Ah yes, subjective, I know. But I’m thinking it’s the most beautiful supercar made today. Whether perched on a jaw-dropping mountainside or stood there beside the Colosseum itself, it mounts a flamboyant defence against being upstaged.

    The 488’s body shape might be all about the intricacies of airflow management, but honestly it also halts your breath and steals your heart. And that’s the level on which this whole car operates. The chassis is engineered for lap times but confers spine-tingling joy up a mountain road. The engine delivers immense torque on the dyno, but visceral passion through the gears. This is Ferrari absolutely on its game. It’s what supercars are about. The numbers and the technology are all very well, but if they do their best work on the spec sheet they are as dust. A supercar has to engage the driver, stoke the passion. And right to the day I too am finally dead and buried, the car that took me to that little hilltop cemetery near Potenza will remain engraved in my memory.

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